The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Setbacks Part One
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Last week, I wrote about setbacks.As has always been the case with these topics, they’re more involved than I initially plan. Sure, I can write about setbacks in 2000 words, but I can’t write about them in depth.
So I started in-depth last week, and I got through two of my four categories.Let’s see how far I get this week.
To review, I listed four major categories of setbacks.I know, I know, there are a million subcategories, but I can’t deal with a million, not and retain my sanity.
The four major categories are:
If you want to review the first two, check out last week’s post.Let’s move directly to the third setback.
3. Physical Setbacks.Physical setbacks find many forms, but they’re always caused by something outside your freelance business acting upon your freelance business.
Some are things the insurance companies call “Acts of God.”Fires, earthquakes, floods, tornados, hurricanes are all “Acts of God.”You can insure for most of them—you need special insurance for floods, for example—but insurance doesn’t stop the setback.It only ameliorates the damage.
Let me explain what I mean.Before I met him, my husband Dean Wesley Smith lost his house to a fire.The fire started in a control panel, and had he been home that day, he could have stopped the damage.But he was out of town, and arrived at the house in time to see the fire department hosing off his collectible books in the front yard.
Dean has always been a big believer in insurance, and he was fully covered for the damages that occurred that day.He got reimbursed for all the lost items, including the collectibles, but some problems that occurred from the fire couldn’t be fixed.
In those days, Dean wrote on a typewriter.He lost dozens of manuscripts, many single copies of his publications, and some works in progress.He was too traumatized to go back to the works in progress, even though he could have reconstructed them from scratch, but the lost manuscripts were another matter entirely.
You see, after writing for some time, we writers don’t remember our early works very well.Just the other day, I found a story I had forgotten I had written.Last year at Worldcon, a publisher asked to reprint a story I hadn’t though of in nearly 20 years.I reread the story, realized that now I would write it differently, and looked at it as an artifact of another, younger version of Kris.Just as valid, but very, very different.
Most businesses would have some of the same problems.If the collectibles store that we sold a few years ago burned down tomorrow (God forbid), many rare items would be lost.The owner is insured, but the hard-to-find items would be impossible to replace.
Events like this take an emotional toll, just like financial and mechanical/technical/production setbacks do.Even now, reminders of the fire make Dean take a deep breath.We’ve been clearing our house of unwanted possessions as we move our offices this summer, and we found the dishes that Dean had managed to save after the fire.He waved a hand, said, “Get rid of them,” and then, not an hour later, changed his mind.He couldn’t bear to part with something he had worked so hard to save.
Here’s the thing about physical setbacks:There’s the event and then there’s the aftermath.
The fire took place in a single day.Dean can still tell you the exact date.But the aftermath took years.
For a larger example, look at Hurricane Katrina.People all over the Gulf Coast lost homes, but they also lost businesses.Areas remained closed for months.Some of those businesses—although insured—never reopened.Some are still being rebuilt.
Imagine losing four years of your life to rebuilding your home and business.It takes a special kind of person to dive in all over again.You have to rebuild your life, of course, but you don’t always have to rebuild it in exactly the same way.
Sometimes the physical setbacks don’t even have to happen to you or near you.When the planes struck the Twin Towers on 9/11, Dean and I were at home in Oregon.Yet that single event caused a huge ripple through publishing, which is based in New York.
My main publisher at the time was located an area near Ground Zero, an area that was shut down by the city for more than a month.My secondary publisher lost a number of people in accounting, including the main person who signed the checks.Dean has similar stories.
We did not receive any of the monies owed to us from New York for more than six months after 9/11.We didn’t get paid on our contracts—money due to us that September—until March of 2002.
That was a financial setback for us, but it was caused by a physical setback, and my brilliant husband saw it coming.(If you’re ever in a disaster, you want Dean at your side.He can see all the implications immediately.)
While I watched television, horrified by the events, and worked the phones and the internet to see if our friends and colleagues were still alive, Dean piled a bunch of collectible books into our van and drove two hours to Portland.He went to Powell’s Bookstore and traded those books for cash.Good thing he did: Powell’s shut down its trading arm the next day for some time (a month, I think) and as I said, we didn’t get paid for six months.
We didn’t need that thousand dollars on 9/11, but we sure needed it in the weeks that followed.I would never have thought of that, but Dean did, and he acted swiftly.
It’s tough to act swiftly in a physical crisis.If the crisis is happening near you or to you, you often can’t act swiftly.You’re involved in the event, and then you’re surviving the aftermath.
Sometimes the very nature of the physical setback—such as Katrina—will cause the aftermath to seem very much like the event.The trauma will continue for some time before recovery can even start.
There’s another kind of physical setback, one that can be as bad or worse.You get hurt.If you’re the sole proprietor of your business and have no employees, you suddenly have no ability to work either.Even those businesses with employees might not be able to go on for very long without you, because you might be the only one with check-writing ability or the ability to find the jobs or the vision to keep the business on track.
Just this afternoon, I was talking with our gardener.He’s a strong and able man, who gets more work done in an afternoon than I can imagine.He has at least three employees.
On Friday, he was cutting down a holly tree with a chain saw on one of his many job sites.He inspected the tree before cutting it down, looked the area around the tree, and saw nothing amiss. Then he fired up the chain saw and started cutting.
The sound of the saw awoke yellow jackets, which had nested in an underground hollow.He said, “I looked up and saw at least 600 of them heading right toward me.”
He jumped, with the chainsaw still going, off the incline he was working on and ran for his truck.Halfway there, he realized the yellow jackets were going for his green shirt, so he pulled the shirt off. Many of the yellow jackets stayed behind, stinging the shirt.
The rest came after him.
He was stung at least 35 times.
To make matters worse, he’s allergic to the stings.His assistants drove him from the job site to the nearby hospital, a drive of less than five minutes, and he could barely breathe by the time he got inside the emergency room.
So what did he do?
He took the weekend off.But he was back to work on Monday.He’s still puffy, and he says he’s downing Benedril like crazy, but he’s working.
The man should be at home.He should be recovering.He should be resting and taking care of himself. But as he says, it’s his busiest season.He can rest when the rains start in November.
Until then, he’s moving through the pain.
His assistant, who helped him get to the hospital and who is at least twenty years younger, is astonished by this. But his assistant doesn’t own the business.He doesn’t know how important it is to keep working.The assistant—like so many employees—would have the luxury of taking the time off.
Sometimes you can’t keep working.Sometimes you have to rest.Sometimes you have to recover.I often say—only half joking—that I could get hit by a bus tomorrow.But I could.And depending on the damage, I might not be back to work for months, if ever.
One more story, and then I’ll quit and get to the bullet points.At the age of nine, I fell off my bicycle and landed on my face.I have a lot of physical scarring.Most people don’t notice it, but the scarring is severe enough that most plastic surgeons when they meet me, wave a hand around their face and say, “I can fix that for you if you want.”
(I don’t want.What I do want is for plastic surgeons to leave me alone.)
I have never fixed the scars, but the teeth needed repair.I had knocked out my front teeth which were, unfortunately, my permanent teeth.First I had them capped, then they got recapped twice in my twenties.All of these procedures were supposed to be permanent.In my late thirties, the dentists just replaced the front teeth entirely.(That cost money, since I can’t get dental insurance because of my pre-existing condition.)
After the first surgery to replace the teeth, I spent a day or so on my back. I’d had dental surgery before, and I planned for those two days off.The third day rolled around, and I stumbled to my desk.Then, I began to cry.I couldn’t remember how write.I thought something in my brain got damaged in the surgery.
Turns out that certain extremely strong pain pills block parts of the brain from communicating with each other.I could want to write, but I couldn’t quite figure out how.
I stopped taking the pills. I’d rather hurt than not write. I’m a person with a very high pain tolerance.I can go without pain pills for things that knock most people over.
Most folks wouldn’t have been able to forego the medication, and what should have been a few days off might have become weeks.
So how do you handle physical setbacks?
A. Plan for them.
I know, I know.How do you foresee a disaster like Hurricane Katrina?You don’t exactly.(No one could have predicted the bungling that made the results of that storm even worse.)
But you do know the Acts of God that threaten your part of the world.If you live in Southern California, for God’s sake, get earthquake insurance.If you live on an historical flood plain, pony up the extra money and buy flood insurance.
Make sure you’re insured for fire and make sure you have a business rider on your home owners policy.(See the section on insurance.)
Insurance isn’t enough, however.Most of us, no matter what business we’re in, do some work on computer.Store your back-ups off site.I keep one current back-up of everything in the car and older back-ups in our storage unit, far from our house.
I’m putting my publications in order as well, and when I have enough, I store the extra copies in the storage unit. That way, if something happens to our house, I can reconstruct most of my published material.I won’t get all of it, but I’ll get some of it.
Store financial records off-site (in a secure location) and store other important things off site as well.For example, in my computer meltdown earlier this summer, the one thing I didn’t back-up was my e-mail addresses.I’m still reconstructing those.
In fact, you’ve seen the results of that tiny physical setback all summer if you’ve been watching my website.I’m still behind on posting things.I lost two weeks of computer time I didn’t realize that I couldn’t afford to lose.
You can bet I won’t make that same mistake the next time.
B. Assess the damage as quickly as you can.
If you’re lucky, you have a mind like Dean’s, and can foresee future problems on the day the event occurs.Most of us don’t think that way. But as soon as you can, dust yourself off and take stock.Look at the extent of the damage and figure out what it will take to fix everything.
Don’t just look at the financial impact.Look at the physical one.Must you rebuild your office?Can you rent an office suite?Are you living out of a hotel? Did the doctor find additional problems in that exploratory surgery?
Get estimates from contractors, talk to your physicians, and then take their timelines and double them.Assume that as the rebuilding happens, something else will go wrong.If you plan for a long setback (like Dean did on 9/11), you and your business will survive the crisis.
You also need to figure out if you’ll be able to work during the rebuild.Can you supervise construction and continue your legal practice?Are you clearheaded enough to continue offering therapy to your clients?
These are important questions, not just for your future, but for the future of your business.
C. Expect a long aftermath. Yes, I just dealt with the length of the physical aftermath, above, but there’s also an emotional aftermath.When my father died, I couldn’t work for an entiremonth.Even though writing was my escape as well as my business, I couldn’t get a word on paper.I was grieving and grieving hard.I was trying to make sense of a world without my father in it.It took me some time to reorient myself.I finally got back to work, but I didn’t get up to speed for nearly six months.
Dean was still having trouble working when I met him a year after the house fire. The loss of his manuscripts had devastated him.He got work done, but he had trouble believing it would last.
Severe physical events cause emotional trauma.Expect it, be kind to yourself when it happens, and if need be, get some professional help to overcome the most serious effects.You’ll be glad you did—and so will the people around you.
D. Be honest with yourself.Physical setbacks are often opportunities in disguise.Maybe you felt trapped by your at-home business.Maybe you actually hated going to the store every day.Maybe you aren’t really fond of plumbing after all.
If that’s the case, use this loss as a chance to start over.
If you still love your work, you might have developed bad habits or overspending.This setback might be the time to rebuild the way you should have built the business in the first place.
Be honest about the business’s flaws and try to fix them as you rebuild the business.
E. Be realistic. Will the insurance money be enough to rebuild the business?Will your savings cover you while you’re recuperating from major surgery?Make sure your assessment of these crucial things is honest and straightforward, and a bit on the pessimistic side.
It’s always better to plan for the worse case scenario. That way, when things aren’t as bad as expected, you’re actually ahead.
F. Find a way to replace the lost income.During the rebuilding period, you might have to get a day job to tide you over.Do so as quickly as you reasonably can, so that your basic expenses are covered.This is not a failure.Instead, it’s another forward step toward getting yourself and your business back on your feet.
Physical setbacks are a lot more powerful than we give them credit for.They last longer and are often harder to overcome than anyone expects.
Like other setbacks mentioned in this subsection of the Guide, you will have a physical setback at one time or another.You need to plan for any that you can foresee.The better your planning, the calmer you are in the face of adversity, the quicker you will recover.
I guarantee it.